If you’re starting a blues band, it’s likely you’ll fall into one of two camps. Either the reverential, formulaic kind, built on the mindset that all blues tracks are pinned on traditional patterns, or the more swashbuckling mutation, purveyed by the guitar heroes of the 70s and 80s and picked up by thousands since.
Kill It Kid are taking a third route. The British four-piece may only be in their mid-20s, but they have a healthy reverence for the original bluesmen of the 40s and 50s (Mississippi Fred McDowell, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Blind Willie McTell – even naming themselves after a song by the latter). They take these deep influences and twist them into something new and modern, their molten blues-rock and incendiary live show being more Jack White than Joe Bonamassa.
“When it becomes an exercise in guitar wank, I get very bored of it,” says vocalist/guitarist Chris Turpin, slowly sinking into the enormous brown sofa backstage at Manchester’s Ruby Lounge, where they’ll play in a couple of hours. “I hate the guitar-slinging, leather-poncing white man’s blues.”
Turpin himself is very white, it has to be said. His fair complexion is accentuated by poker-straight pale blond hair. Similarly, keyboardist and co-vocalist Stephanie Ward resembles a friendly Brigitte Bardot reincarnated as a stylish art history student. Neither of them look like they’re from within a thousand miles of the Mississippi Delta.
But then Turpin’s throaty rasp and Ward’s charcoal tones don’t exactly sound like the product of East Anglia and deepest Sussex respectively either. The former’s early musical experiences came growing up in Norwich – his mother was a choirmaster and piano teacher; the young Turpin sang in church choirs. From there, he fell into his father’s Led Zep and Free records, which made him curious to dig deep into those bands’ inspirations. “With early blues it’s people playing in their own intimate style, it’s completely raw,” he says now. “It’s their own voice speaking through an instrument.”
A hundred and fifty miles south-west in Crawley, Ward grew up listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. At 13, she picked up piano, playing a boogie-woogie style. “That was basically my way in with blues,” she says.
These two old souls in young frames met while studying a music course at Bath University in 2008, bonding at a local folk night where they also met drummer Marc Jones. Fuelled by “naïve” enthusiasm, they were spotted by PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish, who produced their first EP, Burst Its Banks. They were quickly signed to hip indie label One Little Indian, who whisked them out to Seattle to record their folky, violin-laced self-titled debut album with Foo Fighters producer Ryan Hadlock. “I remember feeling like it was our only opportunity to prove everything we could do,” Jones says. “And then hearing the playback and thinking, ‘God, how can people not love this?!’ But reality hit us, of course. You realise you’ll have to work your arse off.”
Work their arses off they did, criss-crossing the toilet circuit and picking up bassist – and Northern Soul DJ – Dom Kozubik on the way. By the time they recorded their second album, Fall Feet Heavy, they were wearing their out-and-proud bluesiness on their collective sleeve, right down to the crackly recordings of old-time preachers that intersperse the songs.
“We’ve been through the UK, like, 12 times,” Turpin nods. “We booked that first tour, 35 dates, ourselves. I pretended to be a promoter to get gigs.”
Things might have stayed like that if it weren’t for an acoustic slot at the music industry event Midem in France in 2011, where they were spotted by Seymour Stein, boss of heavyweight US label Sire and the man who signed the Ramones and Madonna. Stein was impressed, and within months he’d snapped the band up. “That deal was signed in the foyer of a motorway stop,” says Turpin. “Unreal.”
With the weight of Sire and their parent company, Warner Bros, behind them, Kill It Kid decamped to LA to record their third album, You Owe Nothing. “With the second album it was ten days in the snow, in Shoreditch, with a console held together with a paperclip,” Turpin remembers. “So to experience that ‘yes’ culture in LA, with everything we needed, and Slash working next door… it was bizarre.”
The bizarreness was compounded when Turpin and Ward – now an item – were invited to play a charity gig at former Bond actress Jane Seymour’s house. “We ended up coming back the next day and got introduced to Glen Campbell,” Turpin says, incredulously. “So we were sat in this Hollywood mansion playing Caroline to Glen Campbell. That was a prolonged moment of ‘What the hell is going on?!’”
Hollywood might have tempted them, but right now there’s a job to be done. Onstage in Manchester, Kill It Kid prove themselves one of the most electrifying live bands around. Possessed by the ghosts of the Deep South, they pump their heavyweight beats and manic guitars with rocket fuel, while Turpin and Ward’s chemistry lends a smouldering sensuality way beyond their years.
Before the show, Ward muses on why her band are attracting people’s attention. “The response is generally: ‘We like the record, but we love the live show,’” she says.
“You can be a bit wilder, sing and play a little harder,” agrees Turpin.
Wilder and harder, yes. But guitar-slinging or “leather-poncing”? Not here, kid.